Ball Brothers Foundation: Emphasizing family and community

By August 15, 2017Feature

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Efficient, flexible and patient.

These three adjectives guide the funding decisions of the Muncie-based Ball Brothers Foundation, according to Program Officer Jenna Wachtmann.

Both Wachtmann and Senior Program Officer Rich Spisak, who came to the foundation just over a decade ago as its first full-time officer, took time recently to share the vision, innovations and unique focuses of the foundation, which at age 90, is among the earliest established foundations in the country.

“Part of the role of this foundation is it is able to provide efficient, flexible and patient capital. I think patient capital is a really good term for the work that we do. We can be patient and see things through,” Wachtmann said.

Patience shows up in current projects, such as improving the area around Kitselman Trail Head, which has been part of the foundation’s vision for 20 years.

“We have just been slowly chipping away at projects in that geographic area,” said Wachtmann, who joined the foundation three years ago. She said key to committing to a project for the long run is that the foundation’s endowment is set up as a perpetual, not sunset foundation.

In the U.S., there are over 42,000 family foundations with assets of more than $400 billion, according to Foundation Source, a service provider that helps families become more efficient philanthropists. In the past, family foundations rarely thought about an end to family’s giving, assuming they would exist in perpetuity from generation to generation. One reason some foundations sunset is concern that over time there might be a shift from the original donors’ intent. There are other reasons, too, like children not having an interest in the foundation or assets dwindling.

That, however, is not the case for the Ball Brothers Foundation. The foundation’s first strategic plan was developed a little over a decade ago. During those strategic planning sessions, lengthy discussions led to the decision that the family would continue to be involved in leadership roles. As a result, it became a high priority to cultivate that next generation of leaders.

Family member Michael Justin (Jud) Fisher is the foundation’s president. He is a Michigan native, a graduate of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and joined the Ball Brothers Foundation in 2003 after a banking career. The board is currently made up of third and fourth generation family members. Of the 13 board members, only four are not family members. Spread across the country are well over 200 descendants.

The foundation’s associate directors’ program helps educate the next generation of leaders. While the program was started before both full-time program officers joined the staff, they have helped formalize it. Currently six family members who live outside of the state take part.

The six come to Muncie three times a year at their own expense to learn about the community and the foundation’s grantees. Site visits have become part of their experience.

“They’re seeing exactly where our grants are going. The last time they were here, we took a bus tour. We put our board members, associate directors, and several community leaders on a bus and drove for two and a half hours around the city, pointing out all the various projects that we’ve talked about for a long time. They hadn’t always seen the previously funded projects or how they connect to one another. Those are valuable learning opportunities. So that gets to the heart of the innovation — as new proposals come to light, our board can make great decisions because they’ve seen in person what is being talked about,” Wachtmann said.

Not only have family members become aware of how a foundation operates prior to possible service, but they also have become ambassadors to the rest of the family and their communities. While not guaranteed a spot on the board, associate directors are guaranteed the opportunity to learn how the foundation operates.

“They’re learning skills that they’re taking back to Denver or to New York City, so they’re involved philanthropically in their own community in ways that benefit them, too,” said Wachtmann.

Donor intent is vitally important and talked about regularly. The perpetual mission — to continue to improve quality of life — has always been at the forefront, according to both program officers.

“The board honors that because these were the family members who came before them. They’ve made the choice to continue to honor that donor intent out of respect for the legacy, but also because the need is clearly still here. We are set up so that we can always serve the needs of the community,” said Wachtmann.

One thing that has changed in recent years is the foundation’s visibility in the community.

“We’re much more transparent than we ever have been,” said Spisak. In the last 10 to 15 years, interactions with nonprofits and ways of doing business have changed. During this period, the foundation began to produce annual reports, and has held annual receptions for foundation grantees.

Wachtmann believes that not having a regular annual report was rooted in the family not wanting to draw a lot of attention to its giving. “But I think that there was a realization that the foundation could have a greater impact by telling its own story, and by telling the stories of its grantees. This, coupled with studies that showed that people just didn’t understand what foundations did, resulted in more of a drive to tell BBF’s story.” Ball family members, too, receive the annual report whether or not they are directly involved.

The decision to have some board members be community leaders who know the area was also intentional. The Ball brothers lived, worked and made their lives in Muncie, and they were dedicated to improving the quality of life here. Those board members who live locally can help guide the conversations to priority community needs.

“Our charter restricts us to give only in the state of Indiana. Over time, it has always been that the majority of money has stayed in this local community and that has been the underlying belief of the family throughout the years,” said Spisak. He said typically, 90 percent of the foundation’s money stays in Muncie/Delaware County with only a small percentage given statewide.

Another program to increase transparency was started over a decade ago. An annual fellow’s program is designed to help local nonprofits understand from the inside, how the foundation works.

Two nonprofit directors are selected to participate for nine months. Often they are from very different organizations. At the onset, each receives $7,500, and later in their tenures, another $7,500 to work on individual projects. In addition, fellows receive money to attend a conference of their choice.

Together with foundation staff, they read and discuss several books and articles about foundations and management, like Jim Collin’s book, “Good to Great,” and Joel Fleishman’s book, “The Foundation: A Great American Secret: How Private Wealth is Changing the World.” In the summer, they visit the Foellinger Foundation to see how another foundation functions.

Spisak said they have gotten great feedback about the program. The program was born out of conversations with the Fort-Wayne-based Foellinger Foundation that included questions such as: How do we make sure that nonprofit organizations understand what a foundation is? How do we make nonprofits more comfortable with foundations? And at the same time, how do we learn more about what’s it really like to be in the shoes of a nonprofit executive?

To date, more than 20 local nonprofit leaders have completed fellowships. These fellows have also served as focus groups for the foundation staff helping simplify the grant process and offering input on the best format for the foundation’s annual report. The relationships have provided staff with candid insights.

According to Wachtmann, nonprofit ownership is critical. In recent years, the foundation has made proactive grants, inviting nonprofits to address a problem in the community and come up with a proposal. The foundation is not prescriptive with these RFPs, instead relying on its grantees to be the experts on knowing what’s best for their nonprofits and their communities.

Annually the Ball Brothers Foundation provides 40 to 50 Rapid Grants capped at $5,000. The beauty is the response time — nonprofits receive approval or denial of funding in seven to 10 days. Both said the innovation has been incredible and that people can take $5,000 and “make magic happen.”

With their roles in the community, for example, program officers often pick up on area trends and issues. The opioid epidemic is one of growing concern. Another is that manufacturing sector employment is down. And while manufacturing output is still extraordinarily high, there have been population losses.

So questions the foundation continues to ask is: What do we do to make our community as attractive as possible? How does our community attract families and businesses to move there? How do we ensure that professionals want to stay here and raise their families? “That theme is kind of at the forefront of all of our work,” said Wachtmann.

According to Spisak, workforce development is key because poverty is such an issue.

“Poverty just affects everything. Quality of life. Economic development. Population growth. Employers coming in. We’re doing so much more with workforce development, economic development, working with our Chamber to try to tie things together,” he said.

Muncie has always been grounded in entrepreneurship. In fact, the foundation exists because the Ball Brothers were inventors and makers. Among the programs that BBF has supported include STEM education and robotics for schools and after-school programs. Recent grants to maker spaces in Anderson and Muncie provide opportunities for these efforts.

“It ties back to ‘What is the community talking about?’ We faced devastating population losses. We have to be a community that can attract people here and business to locate here. We’ve got to capture that entrepreneurial spirit back. And so part of our job is to continue to find ways to drive to find good projects that drive the quality of life,” said Wachtmann.

Both officers believe another role that the foundation plays is a convener, asking, What are the problems? What are the challenges? What are your needs?

In the past year, summits organized by the foundation included opportunities for early childhood and environmental grantees to share innovative programming and potentially make collaborative connections. The environmental summit included grantees from Northern Michigan’s Leelanau area, which are supported by another Ball family philanthropy, the Muncie-based Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball Foundation.

As Ball Brothers Foundation moves forward, it also looks back. Some of its earliest projects were visionary, including its early grant to build a hospital. With past strong support for medical efforts, and with the IU School of Medicine housing the second largest program in the state in Muncie, the foundation’s president began to look at what to do to continue to strengthen the medical portion of the economic community engine. The other major economic driver in the community is Ball State University.

Hospital and IU School of Medicine-Muncie personnel approached Fisher to begin a dialogue about the future direction of medicine in Muncie. The outcome was concept called Optimus Primary and is designed to strengthen the medical education sector in Muncie, giving it more of a niche.

“We know based on research that where a doctor trains, he/she often stays within a certain 100 miles radius of that area. And so the more doctors that train in our community, and the better doctors that train in our community, hopefully, we can retain some of those in our city. So that’s good for our region, and it’s good for our state,” said Wachtmann. Delaware County is 87th out of 92 counties in community health rankings, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation county health rankings report, so good medical care is imperative.

What they learned from doctors in training in Muncie was that they wanted better housing options and specialized training opportunities.

“Then we’re able to issue a request for a proposal that says, ‘We’ve heard that these are themes that you have in common, and we’re ready to respond to that. You tell us what you want to do. We’re not going to tell you, we don’t know, what your future doctors need training-wise, but you tell us what you need to be innovative, and we’ll take a look at it,” said Wachtmann.

“So we made a series of grants of about half a million dollars in response to what were those identified community needs. Our funding is targeted to pilot several initiatives to make medical training in our community stand out,” she said.

One of those initiatives involves joint training programs where EMS personnel will be training right beside doctors in combined scenarios. This and other collaborations include Ball State University, Meridian Health Services and additional partners who will help develop program and curriculum that help strengthen Muncie’s physician-training programs and make them stand out.

There is some risk with innovation. Wachtmann said Purdue University’s President Mitch Daniels talks about measuring the risk of inaction against the benefit of proactive.

“We can sit and wait and think, ‘Oh, it seems kind of dicey’ or we can jump in and say, ‘We’re going to put a bit of money into it and we’ll see what happens.”


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Indiana Youth Institute, in partnership with the Ball Brothers Foundation, intends to help improve the organizational effectiveness of youth-serving nonprofit organizations in East Central Indiana.

With funding provided by the Ball Brothers Foundation, IYI invites community and faith-based youth-serving nonprofit organizations to apply for assistance to improve their current effectiveness and their capacity to serve in the future.

Grantees are limited to organizations within Delaware, Randolph, Henry, Jay, Madison, Grant, and Blackford counties.

Request for applications can be found here.

Applications are due to IYI by 9:00 a.m. (EDT) on Aug. 28.

Two grants will be awarded. Collaborative applications from two or more agencies for one grant award are encouraged. Each grant recipient will receive the following:

  • 80 to 120 hours of coaching and technical assistance focused on one or more of the following (see page 6 for more details):
    • Strategic planning
    • Fundraising and sustainability planning
    • Board development
    • Evaluation plans and processes
    • Financial management policies and processes
    • Human Resources management policies and processes
    • Executive Coaching
    • Another area that would increase the effectiveness of the organization
  • Registration and hotel expenses for 2 persons to attend IYI’s Because Kids Count Conference in Indianapolis – November 28 & 29, 2017.
  • Registration of $750 for 1 person to attend a professional development training or conference in spring 2018. The Fund Raising School at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is one option for consideration.
  • The opportunity (based on successful completion of other activities) to apply for a sub-award of $5000 to $10,000 to be used only for approved organizational effectiveness/capacity-building purposes.


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